Kurd polls keep status quo, US urges Iraq peace

Opposition groups made a surprise gain in Iraqi Kurdistan’s weekend elections, but ruling parties entrenched in a feud with Arab leaders in Baghdad clung to power and were unlikely to drop their main demands.

The preliminary results from Saturday’s presidential and parliamentary polls came shortly after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Kurdish leaders, in a visit to Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish enclave, to act quickly to reduce tensions.

Gates met Masoud Barzani, re-elected as Kurdish president with 69.6 percent of the vote, the former guerrilla leader who has refused to yield on claims to oil-producing Kirkuk region.

That and other disputes may pose the chief threat to Iraq as sectarian violence ebbs more than six years after the 2003 invasion.

Gates on Wednesday said the United States, where officials are increasingly worried about the rift between minority Kurds and majority Arabs triggering renewed violence, offered “whatever assistance we can to help resolve these disputes in a peaceful manner”, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.

The polls, the first time Iraqi Kurds elected a president directly, went off on Saturday without major disruptions. Electoral officials said turnout was close to 80 percent.

A reform-minded opposition movement, Change, took a suprise 23.8 percent of the parliamentary vote, but complained of fraud and aggression from the region’s ruling two-party alliance.

“These figures contradicted the real will of the Kurdish people and were the result of organised forgery … by the two parties in power,” senior Change member Shamal Abdulla said.

Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (KDP) took 57 percent of the parliamentary vote.

“We are happy with these preliminary results and with the success of this election. It is a proud day for our people,” KDP official Jaafar Ibrahim said.

Accompanying Gates in Arbil was General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who on Tuesday called the Kurd-Arab dispute the “number one driver of instabilities” in the country.

Gates said on Wednesday the clock was ticking for Kurds and Arabs to settle differences before U.S. troops leave by 2012, a withdrawal that may be accelerated as security improves.

“I think there’s at least some chance of a modest acceleration of the phased U.S. troop withdrawal, starting as soon as January,” Gates told reporters.

The number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq had been scheduled to go down to 12 from the current 14 in January, when Iraq goes to the polls in its first national elections since 2005, but Gates said the number could fall to 11 instead. A typical brigade consists of about 5,000 troops.

U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraqi city and town centres on June 30, thrusting untested local forces into the lead for urban security.

The only thing that could derail the timetable is “a spark in Kurd-Arab tensions,” Morrell told reporters aboard the U.S. military plane taking Gates home.



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